Recently a friend showed me this amazing video of bonobos, who probably invented the slogan make love not war. In the video, zoologists presented one of the bonobos with footage of another bonobo yawning and just as a human would when they see someone yawn, the bonobo yawned too.

Some studies suggest contagious yawning is linked to our pre-disposition to empathy and that the more a person engages in contagious yawning the higher their ability to not only understand but to feel what another is feeling—to be able to walk around in someone else’s skin as Atticus Finch would say.

Because I’m always thinking of writing

All this got me thinking of writing, and how, to be a good writer you need to have a great capacity for empathy—or at least be effective in conveying it and making readers feel it. A quick lesson on empathy Simon Baron-Cohen, author of Zero Degrees of Empathy, suggests there’s two kinds of empathy—affective and cognitive.

  • Cognitive empathy refers to knowing what another is feeling or thinking. Even people who can’t feel empathy may be able to use cognitive empathy by picking up the feelings of another through their tone of voice, body language, expression, etc. At this level you can read another’s emotions but it doesn’t mean you care about what they are feeling.
  • Affective (or emotional) empathy is the sensations and feelings individuals experience in response to someone else’s emotions. It can include mirroring what the person is feeling (thus the contagious yawning conclusions) or experiencing an emotional response to another’s emotions.

Some, such as Paul Ekman go as far to suggest the motivation to actually do something based on what we feel in relation to another’s emotions is actually a third level of empathy which he dubs as compassionate empathy.

So how does this affect writers?

‘Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.’

F. Scott Fitzgerald

If you write fiction you’ll probably identify with Fitzgerald’s comment. I mean, sometimes I feel like I’m going crazy with all the characters I have inside of me, vying for attention and trying to bubble out onto the page. These imaginary people are as real to me as anyone else I can touch. Sometimes more real because I know them from the inside out. When I write I am them.

This is where empathy comes in. To be these characters you have to not only inhabit them but understand who they are and the motivations behind the choices they make. And because your characters often make choices you, as a person would never contemplate it means you need high levels of empathy to truly understand even the worst of them.

A Little Life

I recently went to see a talk with Hanya Yanagihara and whether you’re someone who loves or loathes A Little Life the author had some interesting things to say about creating characters. For anyone who has read the book you’ll know there are a lot of damaged people inhabiting Yanagihara’s world and many of them are the perpetrators of the worst kinds of heinous acts. At the talk, the author discussed the idea of knowing more about your characters than you show the audience (ala Hemmingway’s Iceburg Theory), writing them in a way that your reader knows you know more than you’re telling them. This is important because, unless you’re writing in an omniscient POV, your main characters (or character) are only going to see people in a certain way, but you as a writer want them to understand that even your secondary characters have a life outside this slice of narrative you’re offering them.

For example, one of the most horrible characters in A Little Life (and there are many) was a child sex offender. While he was an antagonist in the story the author had to at least try and understand him. The way she put it was that, while what he does is one of the worst things you can do, her job was to grasp the individual as a whole person, with fears, hopes, dreams and a life outside the one being presented to the audience. If a writer couldn’t do that, then the character would be a shell and the readers would know it.

Yanagihara said she had to know everything about her characters down to what flavour of ice cream was their favourite. And that’s because, as a reader it’s what she’d expect of an author.

When you think about it like this you can see why empathy is an important part of writing. By having a complete understanding of your characters it means they will be fully fleshed out so the audience can feel something for them. And you need the reader to care about what happens or you risk them exiting the story.

So how do you make your audience feel something?

The first step is to show what your characters are feeling in a physical way (cognitive empathy). This is easily achieved through body language, for example, she smiled, he laughed, her eyes narrowed, he plunged his hands into his pockets.

Secondly you need to show the audience why the characters make the decisions they do. This is not only limited to your main character but the others around them—make them human and your audience will respond in kind.

Do you think it’s important for writers to have empathy? How do you think it affects their work? How has it affected your work?

On a side note whether or not you agree contagious yawning relates to our ability to feel empathy you have to admit, bonobos are pretty awesome.

Krystina Pecorari-McBride

Krystina Pecorari-McBride

Krystina is a writer, lawn flamingo enthusiast & founder of Writing Journey Co. She would love to fall headfirst into a book and live there. Or down the rabbit hole...

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